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Acclaimed Poet Billy Collins "X-Rays" Poems For San Diego Students

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February 19, 2013 1:03 p.m.


Billy Collins: former US Poet Laureate. His latest poetry collection is titled "Horoscopes for the Dead."

Related Story: Acclaimed Poet Billy Collins "X-Rays" Poems For San Diego Students


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Poetry and popularity do not always go together in America. Books of poetry rarely wind up on the best seller list unless they are written by my next guest. Billy Collins served as poet Laureate for the United States in the early part of this century, but he is best known for his widely popular books of poetry and his audio collections. He has been a frequent guest on public radio's prairie home companion, and Billy Collins will be in San Diego next week as the headliner of the Point Loma Nazarene university writers symposium by the sea. Mr. Collins, welcome to the show.

COLLINS: Thank, good to be on the show.

CAVANAUGH: When you speak to groups about your work as you will be doing here next week, what do you say? Or rather what is it that you want them to know?

COLLINS: Well, I can't give everything away. No point in coming out then. But if I'm reading poetry, I try to give the audience a kind of mix of serious and irreverent or not so serious, maybe comic poems so that there's sort of an emotional mix. And when I'm writing poem, I'm really trying to get between -- we have these two masks in the theatre, the mask of comedy and the mask of tragedy. And I think there's a third mask in the middle which is like a stereocomic mask, or maybe irony, and that's the edge I'm trying to write in some of these poems. But that's what I try to do in a reading, mix the serious and the comic so that we're not sure of exactly where we are.

CAVANAUGH: Now, where is the artistry in poetry? Is it the imagery, the cadence, the choice of subject?

COLLINS: Well, it's sort of like doing six or seven things at a time. In prose, one just has to write sentences, one after the other. In poetry, you have to -- you don't have to write sentence, but I haven't had a better way to express myself than the sentence, and lines at the same time. Because the line is the second unit or maybe the primary unit of poetry. So lines are delivered one at a time. So those are two things to think about. And even packaging the poem into stanzas is another consideration that is part of the craft of poetry.

CAVANAUGH: When you hold classes with students about poetry, you talk about X-raying a poem. I think we're hearing a little bit of that right now. Can you explain a little bit more what that means?

COLLINS: Well, I think to X-ray a poem is really to find how it gets through itself. When I start a poem, I have an inkling of where the thing is going. I'm not completely in the dark, but I don't know exactly where it's going, and that curiosity is kind of what drives me to continue through the poem. And I think if we take a famous poem and we imagine that Keats has written four lines of it, but he doesn't know what the fifth line is or any of the subsequent lines, then we have a sense that the art of poetry is really a matter of finding a path, an imaginative path which results in a conclusion or some kind of ending. So when I teach poetry, I try to not use the question what does this poem mean, so much as how does this poem continue, how does it commence and how does it keep going, and how does it stop?

CAVANAUGH: Billy Collin, would you read some of your poetry for us?

COLLINS: Oh, now I have to give an example of all this.

COLLINS: All right, well, I'll read from my my newest book, horoscope for the dead. It's called Florida. This yellow ruck ducky,a float in the middle of a blue-green pool Whis red beak and its tail up, is one of those duckies with sunglasses on, a cool ducky, nonchalant little dude, on permanent vacation. But this morning, he looks different. He shades more like the dark glasses of the vine, and him a poor sightless creature, swiveling on a surface of ruffled water, lost at a busy intersection of winds, unable to see -- the cobalt blue sky, the fans of palmettos where the bright blue hibisque us, all much ablaze now in my unshielded lucky eyes.

CAVANAUGH: Billy Collins reading a poem from his collection, horoscopes for the dead. And in doing that, you also show us another dimension of poetry. Do you write poetry primarily to be read on a page or spoken?

COLLINS: Oh, absolutely on the page. I mean I -- when I'm writing, I'm never saying it out loud, but I'm hearing it in my head, and I think when readers, and when I reed poetry, I read it in silence. But I hear it in the kind of acoustical system that is your head. Even if we head the sports page, we can kind of hear the consonants and vowels. But that's not to say the page is a completely silent experience.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think someone can learn to write a good poem? You teach a lot of classes on this. But is part of it at least an innate talent?

COLLINS: Well, you can learn to write bad poetry. When we're born, we all have about 300 bad poems in us. And high school is usually the place to get rid of them if possible by just writing them out.

COLLINS: You can encourage people to write. I don't think you can actually make them into better writers. The best teachers of writing are not the conductors at workshops. They're really other poets that are found not in workshop classes but on the shelves of the library. And there are a couple of things I can't teach, anyway. I can't teach verbal rhythm. Some people have it and some people don't. It's a little like dancing. And I can't teach an interest in producing metaphors. And that's essential to poetry to -- this whole obsession of figuring out the world by making comparisons. And some people have just no interest in drawing a new synapse between one thing and another strange thing and opening up a little path there and if you don't want to make metaphors and you don't have a good sense of rhythm verbally, you should just open up a frame shop in town or something. Poetry is not your thing.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you're frequently referred to as America's most popular poet. But I thought about that for a when I will. And it's a compliment it seems to me with an edge. Does it bother you that poetry is not more popular in America?

COLLINS: Well, it's not that I'm trying to do something about that, but I'm happy to say that, you know, I brought some people into poetry who may be wouldn't have been in there otherwise. It doesn't dismay me, really. There are lots of things that have small -- relatively small audiences like the audience for jazz or the audience for tropical fish or whatever. It's just that poetry just doesn't -- can't compete with the kind of narcotic effect of the novel. The novel has this thing called social realism. That mean what is you're reading in the novel, there is some resemblance to the world you can see outside your window. People are getting on busses and making sandwiches and all that stuff. Poetry 7ers its ways to that social reality and wants to move the reader into zones of the imagination. And that's a tougher cookie to swallow.

CAVANAUGH: Can I ask you perhaps to grace us with another of your poems?

COLLINS: I don't know if grace is the word but I'd be happy to read one.

COLLINS: I'm just going to read a very short poem, eight lines. It's called no time. In a rush, this week day morning, tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery, where my parents lie buried. Side by side under a smooth slab of granite. Then all day long, I think of him, rising up, to give me that look of knowing disapproval, while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

CAVANAUGH: That's wonderful, thank you.

COLLINS: If you think writing a funny poem about your dead parents is easy, you try it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you were the poet Laureate as I mentioned earlier, from 2001 to 2003. I've always thought that must be a particularly stressful job. Do you have to compose poems for certain occasions?

COLLINS: Well, you don't, actually. I did have dinner with the British poet Laureate, Andrew moshin, and he did have to compose poems for special occasions. I think the queen mother died shortly after he took office. But we kind of came to the conclusion that while the British poet had to write occasional poem, the American poet Laureate just had to write occasionally.

CAVANAUGH: I see, okay.

COLLINS: I did write a poem called the names, and that was -- I was asked to by Congress to commemorate the first anniversary of 991. And I read that before Congress.

CAVANAUGH: When this is a poet who writes a poem for, let's say, an inauguration in the United States, people tend to be quite unkind.

COLLINS: I don't know. It's such an impossible task, in a way. The subject matter is so weighty to write about sort of -- I mean, I'd be just paralyzed if I was asked to do such a thing. Maybe people are critical because the poems are really struggling under the weight of their subject matter. And it's very hard to take advantage of the imaginative freedom that poetry offers if you're strapped to a topic, a serious, weighty topic. But I thought Richard Blanco, the one who read in January did an excellent job. I thought his poem was terrific.

CAVANAUGH: Now, if you happen to meet someone in passing, maybe on a plane or just in engaged in conversation with a stranger, and they admitted that they really didn't care for or even understand poetry, but they were willing to give it another try. What kind of advice might you have for them?

COLLINS: Well, first of all, I'd never tell anyone I was a poet on an airplane. I'd say I'm a high school chemistry teacher, and that usually puts the end to the conversation. But -- this is going to sound like an into, but I put together this program called poetry 180, and there are two anthologies out from random house, and they're just 180 I think clear, contemporary, interesting poems. I would tell that person to buy a copy of poultry 180. Most people have fallen behind. They think it's strange that poetry doesn't rhyme anymore. And the reason is that they just haven't paid attention. They've let poetry get away from them because they stopped reading it after school.

CAVANAUGH: You know, again, along those lines with the image that people have of poets and poetry that is perhaps stuck in the past, I think people have this impression in their minds that poets are dreamy people who jot down their impressions and then they sort of leisurely cobble together a poem.

COLLINS: That sound like me.

CAVANAUGH: So that is the reality for you!

COLLINS: Yeah, you got me! Yes.

COLLINS: Well, I -- my persona, are the figure I present in a lot of these poems is in fact intentionally a kind of dreamy speculative guy who kind of wanders around falling into these meditations about rubber duckies and swimming pools. He has no job, he never does the dishes or --

COLLINS: There is that. But poetry is also very difficult.


COLLINS: Not to read it, particularly, but it's handling difficult topics. Poetry is really the only history we have of human emotion. So when we have a wedding or funeral or 911, some occasion like that, people turn to poetry because it's sort of a stabilizing mechanism.

CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I'm almost out of town. Billy Collins will be appearing Tuesday, February 26, at the writers symposium by the sea. At Point Loma Nazarene university. Thank you very much.

COLLINS: It's been a pleasure.